Per Diem Archive: J. Hambrick April 2018, Play
The humorist Leo Rosten once characterized the curmudgeonly comedian W.C. Fields with the now famous quip that any man who hates dogs and babies can’t be all bad. In a whimsically analogous way, any poetic genre that seeks to encapsulate in 17 or fewer syllables all the depth and richness of a moment in one’s experience of the world must have a sense of humor. And so, in its own swift and gentle way, haiku does.
Extending from the poems of the classical Japanese haikuists to those of present-day poets, a playful strand in the haiku tradition includes some stunning examples of contemporary English-language haiku which manifest ‘play’ on multiple levels of poetic structure and meaning: in overt humor, either upbeat or dark; in wordplay – puns and jokes, the frisky use of words and images, the suave multivalence of a well-crafted double entendre; and in themes involving games, sports, music, picnicking, bar hopping, party-going, trick-or-treating, and other frolicsome activities, to name just a few examples.
Take, for instance, Michele Root-Bernstein’s poem “touching tank,” in which an aquarium sea anemone gets more than it bargained for. Or Roman Lyakhovetsky’s “spring cleaning,” in which housework turns into a jazz set. Or the goofy guy in Tom Clausen’s “apple festival.” Everyone can’t be the class clown, of course, and some of the poems in this collection, like Jay Friedenberg’s “empty playground,” make playful first impressions that, on further reflection, open up on far more serious concerns.
While a haiku that embodies the spirit of play to give voice to life’s joys can have the feel of the proverbial breath of fresh air, a haiku that effectively embodies the language and spirit of play to speak deeper, darker truths takes the reader on a journey across the emotional spectrum, creating in just 17 (or fewer) syllables a drama that has the richness and power to transform one’s inner landscape forever.
These playful poems invite you to set down your lofty pretentions, your heartaches, and your attitude and, if only for a moment or two, have some fun.
Go on. You know you want to.
Note: The haiku “snowstorm” was translated from the French by Jennifer Hambrick.